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ESV Global Study Bible :: old testament :: Old Testament: Theology and Key Dates

ESV Global Study Bible :: Old Testament: Theology and Key Dates

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Old Testament

Theology and Key Dates

The Essential Components of the Old Testament Story

The Old Testament can be understood as an unfolding story with a number of basic components:

(1) Monotheism. There is only one true God, who made and rules heaven and earth and all mankind. The Old Testament invites Israel to commit themselves to him in exclusive loyalty and love (Deut. 6:4-9).

(2) Creation and fall. The one Creator God made Adam and Eve with dignity and purpose, calling them to live faithfully to God and to spread the blessings of Eden throughout the earth. Because they betrayed God's purpose, all people since the fall are beset with sins and weaknesses that only God's grace can redeem and heal.

(3) Election and covenant. The one true God chose a people for himself and bound himself to them by his covenant (Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 7:6-11). This covenant expressed God's intention to save the people, and through them to bring light to the rest of the world, in order to restore all things to their proper functioning in the world God made. The land of Israel was to be a kind of reconstituted Eden, which would flourish as the people's faithfulness flourished (or languish if the people were unfaithful). God's covenants generally involve one person who represents the whole people (e.g., Adam, Noah, Abraham, David); the rest of the people experience the covenant by virtue of their inclusion in the community represented. The covenant representative was required to embody the ideal of covenant faithfulness as a model for those on whose behalf he had acted.

(4) Covenant membership. In his covenant, God offers his grace to his people: the forgiveness of their sins, the shaping of their lives in this world to reflect his own glory, and a part to play in bringing light to the Gentiles. The faithful are those covenant members who lay hold of this grace from the heart, enjoying the full benefits of God's love. Judgments upon the whole people often come because too many of them have been unfaithful; these judgments do not bring the story of God's people to an end but serve rather to purify and chasten that people (often by removing unbelieving members).

(5) Eschatology. The story of God's people is headed toward a glorious future in which all kinds of people will come to know the Lord and join his people. The promise of a lasting dynasty for David (2 Sam. 7:16) becomes the expectation that a final heir of his line will one day arise, take his Davidic throne, and lead his people in the great task of bringing light to the Gentiles.

The Parts of the Old Testament in Relation to the Story

The Old Testament is thus the story of the one true Creator God, who called the family of Abraham to be his remedy for the defilement that came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt in fulfillment of this plan, and established them as a theocracy for the sake of displaying his existence and character to the rest of the world. God sent his blessings and curses upon Israel in order to pursue that purpose. God never abandoned that purpose, even in the face of the most grievous unfaithfulness in Israel.

This overarching story serves as a grand narrative or worldview story for Israel: each member of the people was to see himself or herself as an heir of this story, with all its glory and shame; as a steward of the story, responsible to pass it on to the next generation; and as a participant, whose faithfulness could play a role, by God's mysterious wisdom, in the story's progress.

Some would say that we should read the entire Old Testament as a story. This does not help the reader, for the very obvious reason that not everything in the Old Testament is narrative or "story." For example, there are laws (in the Pentateuch), whose purpose was to maintain order by guiding judges in what penalties to impose and by specifying the minimum standard of behavior necessary to preserve the theocracy; there is wisdom (in the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, as well as in the Psalms), which helps God's people live well daily; there are songs (especially the Psalms) that the people of God should sing in corporate worship; there are poems (especially the Song of Solomon; compare Prov. 5:15-20) celebrating such wonders as romantic love; and lots more. Therefore it is better to speak of reading the parts of the Old Testament in relation to its overarching story. That is, we can see the parts in relation to the "Big Story" that unifies the whole. The Proverbs help people to live their little stories in such a way as to contribute to the Big Story. The Psalms—many of which explicitly recount parts of the Big Story—help people live as faithful members of the worshiping people of God. The Prophets keep recalling the Big Story, calling their audiences to live faithfully in its light. The Big Story tells us that God's purpose is to restore our humanity to its proper function, and thus it reminds each person of the human nature he shares with every other human being, and of the duty and benefit of seeking the good of others. For example, enjoying the love of a faithful spouse is a way of experiencing renewed humanity—a way that displays God's goodness to the rest of the world (as in the Song of Solomon).

All of these factors explain why it is possible for the New Testament authors both to say that the Sinai covenant is done away with and at the same time to affirm that this covenant includes principles that cannot pass away, because they are part of the larger story of which the Sinai covenant is one chapter.

The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

The Old Testament presents itself, then, as a story that is headed toward fulfillment. The Old Testament closes with both anxiety and hope under Persian rule (see Malachi). The New Testament authors, most of whom were Jewish Christians, saw themselves as heirs of the Old Testament story, and as authorized to describe its proper completion in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the messianic era that this ushered in. These authors viewed and used the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, and they urged their audiences (many of whom were Gentile Christians) to do the same. They saw the Old Testament as constituting the earlier chapters of the story in which Christians are now participating.

By understanding that there are earlier and later chapters in the story of God's work for his people, we can see how the Old Testament era and the Christian era exhibit both continuity and discontinuity. The Old Testament had looked forward to an internationalized people of God, without explaining exactly how that would connect to the theocracy of Israel. The theocracy defined the people of God as predominantly coming from a particular ethnic group in a particular land; Gentile converts ("sojourners") were protected (Ex. 12:49; 20:10; 22:21; Lev. 19:10) but could not be full-status members of the theocratic community. The New Testament abolishes the distinction (Eph. 2:19), because the theocracy as such is no longer in existence and many of its provisions are done away with (see Acts 10:34-35; Heb. 9:11-14). At the same time, the character of the one Creator God, and his interest in restoring the image of God in human beings, transcends the specific arrangements of the theocracy: hence the moral commands of God apply to Christians as they did to the faithful in Israel (see Rom. 13:8-10).

Old Testament Timeline and Calendar: An Overview of Key Dates

The following page provides a concise Old Testament timeline and overview. The dates (all b.c.) are either the exact year or a close approximation thereof, determined by correlating dates in the Bible with ancient Near Eastern sources (such as Assyrian accession lists, Babylonian king-lists, and Egyptian historical sources). Often dates can be further confirmed by ancient Assyrian and Babylonian documents which give narrative accounts of the same historical events, as recorded by those two countries. All of this adds great confidence and credibility to the truth and historicity of the Bible text itself.

Patriarchs to Judges (c. 2166-1030)*

Moses' birth
Desert wanderings
Entrance into Canaan
Period of the judges
1375 to 1050-1030

United Monarchy (c. 1050-931)

Saul's reign
1050-1030 to 1010
For Saul's age and length of reign, see 1 Sam. 13:1 and its esv footnote**
David's reign
Solomon's reign

Divided Monarchy to Exile (931-586)

Kingdom divided
See The Divided Kingdom, pp. 490-491
Syro-Ephraimite war
Pekah (Israel) and Rezin (Syria) pressure Jotham and Ahaz (Judah) to join their opposition to Tiglath-pileser III (Assyria)
Fall of Samaria (Israel)
Shalmaneser V (727-722) and Sargon II (722-705) of Assyria
Josiah's reforms
Battle of Carchemish
Daniel and three friends exiled to Babylon
Jerusalem attacked
Nebuchadnezzar II takes exiles to Babylon including Jehoiachin and Ezekiel
Fall of Jerusalem (Judah)
Nebuchadnezzar II takes more exiles to Babylon

Return from Exile (539-445)

Fall of Babylon
Cyrus of Persia (539-530)
1st return of exiles to Jerusalem
Temple building begins
Temple completed
Darius I (522-486)
Esther in palace of Xerxes
Xerxes I/Ahasuerus (485-464)
2nd return of exiles to Jerusalem under Ezra
Artaxerxes I (464-423)
3rd return of exiles to Jerusalem under Nehemiah

*The dates for the period of the Patriarchs to Judges follow the common view among many scholars that the exodus occurred c. 1446 b.c. Many other scholars would date the exodus c. 1260 b.c. (See Introduction to Exodus).

**Possible dates for the beginning of Saul's reign are calculated based on other data in the OT: e.g., David's age at accession and length of reign (2 Sam. 5:4-5); Ish-bosheth's age when he became king (2 Sam. 2:10); and Jonathan's probable age in relation to both Ish-bosheth and David, presuming that Jonathan was Saul's firstborn son (1 Sam. 14:49; 31:2) and was at least 20 when referred to as a commander of troops early in Saul's reign (1 Sam. 13:2).

The Hebrew Calendar

The Hebrew calendar was composed of 12 lunar months, each of which began when the thin crescent moon was first visible at sunset. They were composed of approximately 29/30 days and were built around the agricultural seasons. Apparently some of the names of the months were changed after the time of Israel's exile in Babylon (e.g., the first month of Abib changed to Nisan; for dates of the exile, see p. 31). The months of the Hebrew calendar (left column) are compared to the corresponding months of the modern (Gregorian) calendar shown in the center column. Biblical references (in the third column) indicate references to the Hebrew calendar cited in the Bible.

Hebrew Month
Gregorian (Modern) Month
Biblical References
First Month:
Abib (Preexile)
Nisan (Postexile)
14th/15th: Passover (Ex. 12:18; Lev. 23:5)
15th-21st: Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:14-20; Lev. 23:6)
16th: First Fruits (Lev. 23:9-11)
Second Month:
Ziv (Preexile)
Iyyar (Postexile)
14th: Later Passover (Num. 9:10-11)
Third Month: Sivan
4th: Pentecost [Feast of Weeks] (Lev. 23:15-16)
Fourth Month: Tammuz
Fifth Month: Ab
Not mentioned by name in the Bible (compare Num. 33:38; 2 Kings 25:8; 1 Chron. 27:8; Ezra 7:8, 9; Jer. 1:3; 28:1; 52:12; Ezek. 20:1; Zech. 7:3; 5; 8:19)
Sixth Month: Elul
Seventh Month:
Ethanim (Preexile)
Tishri (Postexile)
1st: Trumpets (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1)
10th: Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:27-32)
15th-21st: Booths (Lev. 23:34-40)
22nd: Solemn assembly (Lev. 23:36)
Eighth Month:
Bul (Preexile)
Marchesvan (Postexile)
Ninth Month: Chislev (Kislev)
25th: Dedication (John 10:22)
Tenth Month: Tebeth
Eleventh Month: Shebat
Twelfth Month: Adar*

*Periodically, a 13th month was added so that the lunar calendar would account for the entire solar year.


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